Prague: A quaint old European city

charles bridgePrag/Prague/Praha is a quaint old European city that can cast a spell on you. Urdu poet laureate Ibne Insha expressed his feeling of Prague enchantment in a poem of his: Ya shab ki siar Praha ho, jahan nazrain their thitki hoon, jahan dil ka kanta atka ho (allowing for a bit of artistic license it can loosely be translated as follows: “The evening walk in Prague can bewitch and captivate you”). Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic. It has been the part of the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Austro Hungarian empire. In 1918, after the First World War, it became the Republic of Czechoslovakia. It was occupied by Germany during the Second World War and after the War it was in the the Soviet zone of influence. After the fall of Soviet Union, it broke into the Czech and Slovak republic. With its historic castles, churches, well laid out gardens and cobble stoned streets It is now a very sought after touristic destination. The term bohemian lifestyle comes from this place. The alternate life style that it symbolizes is from the Roma, who are said to have come from this place. Although I rather believe in the theory that the dark skinned migrated to Europe from Rajasthan in the hoary past.

It was dark by the time we reached Prague. The June day was hot. Our train from Berlin Hauptbahnhoff had been cancelled, a rare happening in clockwork perfect Germany. So we traveled by Regiojet bus. The travel was uneventful. The bus had good on board entertainment system. In the four hours journey, I saw a movie based on one of favorite TV programs Man from Uncle. The stewardess offered us cappuccino coffee and the good thing was that it was on the house. The internet was working so you can check up on the social media..

The bus stop at eleven was closed and so were the money exchange. The only place open was a convenience store being run by a young Bengali boy. He changed us money at a slightly unfavorable rate of 24 Czech Korunas for one Euros. For further help he asked a to the Sikh boy, who had just entered the store. I forgave him for making money off us because Gagan was really helpful and hailed us an uber taxi. It is going to cost you 177 korunas to your hotel, we were told. The driver wanted us to pay 200 korunas but we stuck our ground and paid according to the meter and won the first round. Tourist advice was that taxi drivers in Czech Republic can be highhanded. The hotel Jeleni Drivus (Jeleni means moat in Czech) was nice and the receptionist Rustam from Kazakhstan was helpful. He gave us two coupons for beer downtown cafe associated with their hotel. We were able to exchange the coupons for two cups of coffee. The first night that we spent was in a room looking out to the tram station just next to the hotel. Brussnice (it sounded like that) was a busy station and the wife had a hard time sleeping. Next day we got the room changed the one overlooking the castle. Better view and better sleep. The breakfast was good and plentiful and was enough for us for daylong tourism.

The Czech language is woefully short of vowels, so it is different to pronounce their words. Prague has a multi ethnic society. Until the Second World War, it had three distinct populations namely the Czech, the Germans and the Jews. Many Jews were sent to their deaths in the anti-Semitic purges made by Hitler. After the War Germans were forcibly evicted from Czechoslovakia. The Jews spoke German and even had their own variant the Yiddish language. One famous German speaking Jew from Prague was Franz Kafka. A troubled man Kafka had an unhappy childhood and youth. Like Urdu short story Manto (another troubled and misunderstood man), Kafka died in his early forties. I confess I’ve always found Kafka difficult to comprehend. Kafkaesque for me  is something dark and foreboding and Freudian. Sigmund Freud as we know was n Austrian Jew known to us for his method of psychoanalysis. There is a figure of Freud hanging from a pole in Prague. A visit to Kafka’s museum was on my bucket list. Kafka museum is one of the many small and large museums that dot Prague. Someone said that Prague has the most museum per square kilometer than any other city. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this statement but Prague is a small city and if you have time, you’ll be able to see most of the museums in the city. The average admission price to these museums is about koruna 290 per adult. Adult citizens (over 65 can claim some rebate) The only other museum that I saw was the museum of communism. Interesting but a canned version of history. A much bigger and grander one is the national museum at the end of the Wenselas square in the newer part of the city.

Prague is a city than can be enjoyed through leisurely strolls. One is bound to come across most of the important landmarks on the must see list. There are many castles and towers but the Prague castle has to be seen to make you genuine tourist. Old steps takes you the Vltvala River and over the 14th century Charles Bridge (German: Karl Bruecke, Czech: Karluv Most). It’s quite a coincidence that Bosnians also call their bridges Most. There is the Stari Most or old bridge in Moststar. The Charles bridge has eleven arches and there is a statue on each abutment. The bridge is a busy place. Trinkets are being sold and artists are making a quick buck drawing caricatures. Some are not willing to work for the koruna. Beggars prostrate themselves with hands folded in supplication. Their caps lying in front of them for alms. Their dogs are also lying with them, sorry for the fate befallen on their masters. Boats full of tourists float past on an idyllic summer day.

Through the winding streets one comes across vendors selling Prague’s trademark Trdelink confectionery with ice cream stuffing. This chimney shaped bakery item came from Hungary via Romania and is now presented as the original cuisine of Prague. There are open air theaters in the evening and lot of cultural activity for those inclined towards such activity. Mozart had quite a following in Prague, when Prague was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. If you have interest in architecture, you can enjoy the famous barque style of construction. The astronomical clock is quite a sight and is full of tourists, when the clock strikes another hour and all the puppets come twirling out. Prague is also well-known for its puppets. A visit up the Petrin Tower is worth it. It was modelled after the Eifel Tower and was opened to public in 1891. A funicular tram brings you up to the hill. The original funicular had an interesting system of water balancing, in which the wagon on the top was filled with water to drag it down and pull up the wagon at the bottom. Water was released at the bottom, as the wagon on the top was filled with water to repeat he performance. A climb up the tower will again cost you at least three hundred korunas. The exhibition in the basement is for free. Prague has a very elaborate public transport system. The tickets can be bought from kiosks or machines at the bus/tram stops. Some trams have machines installed inside the wagons. Tram 22 takes you past all the historical sites or at least most of them.

We returned to Berlin by train by the fast ICE train. The top speed was 200 km. Our wagon was not hitched to the engine for operational reasons and the lady conductor accommodated us on the seats reserved for the invalid, expectant mothers or the really elderly. We had paid extra money for the seats and I guess we could have saved. The Internet was free and the trip was heavenly. To add more value to to the trip, there was a blonde German Sikh boy on the train with his girlfriend. He obviously didn’t have any reservation and was sitting on the floor next to the door. Gagan at the Prague bus stop had cut his hair. The only religious accouterments was his bangle. The German Sikh had long hair and a turban to cover his ‘kais.’ The bangle with Gurmukhi inscription was adorning his right wrist for good measure. Sat Sri Akal! Back in Berlin, there are more Turks than Germans. World has become a different place. More cosmopolitan and I hope a little more tolerant.


Berlin’s Downtown

alexander_platz_berlin“There is no downtown in Berlin,” said my architect son in law authoritatively. “True there are places like Unter den Linden, Bradenburger Tor, Potsdammer Platz and the Alexander Platz but there is no place like the typical European old city downtown,” he told me with someone, who is knowledgeable about cities and town planning. But despite this expert advice, I have given Alexander Platz the designation of Berlin’s downtown. It is a sheer delight to visit this town square. There is so much humanity and cultural activity in this place that it veritably pulsates as the heart of this old German city.

After two very hot days in Berlin, when the mercury had reached the uncharacteristic 34 degree Celsius in the first week of June, there were light showers in the late afternoon and light gusts of wind. Later in the evening the showers would turn into a torrential rain. As we emerged from the Ubahn station into the Alexander Platz the activity was subdued. There were no break dancers or jugglers. A lone drummer sat in front of the Galleria Kaufhaus and was giving an animated performance to a group of toddlers, who were gathered round him, watching him with earnest attention. A vigorous boy among the rapt audience (average age two years) was actually tapping his feet and swaying to the rhythm. The proud mothers were busy capturing the moment on their smartphones. Some amused passer byes threw coins in the hat of the musical mendicant without stopping. A few scavengers looked into the waste bins looking for glass bottles to claim Pfand (refund). Eureka, one seem to have found a priceless bottle.

Towards the left and beyond the train station, the Fernseh Turm (TV tower) rose up into the dark skies. Yellow trams clattered in and out of the station as commuters came out and climbed into these gleaming wagons. Past the C&A store and other malls, stood the clock tower. Another relic of the Cold War it gives accurate time across the world irrespective of the Western or Eastern sphere of influence. On the top of the tower planets revolved in their metallic orbits in infinite motions. On one side of the square the ugly fountains threw water into the air. School children carrying ruck sacks sat on the edges of the water tank surrounding the fountains.

Two Pakistani vendors stood in their appointed spots selling Soviet military caps, gas masks and other trinkets from the Cold War. They are always there. I mean the persons may change but it is always Pakistani salesman trying to make a living from the East-West conflict of the previous century. Suddenly a slight wind blew off the cap of one of the balding sellers, as he tried to settle a bargain with a Central Asian client trying out a Spetznaz (Soviet Special Forces) red beret. So as not to leave the business unfinished, he looked around for help as his hat drifted farther away. Out of a sense of loyalty to my countryman, I went after the cap and returned it to the gentleman, who could have been from Rawalpindi, Kharian or Gujrat or even Sialkot. “Shukria Bhaijan,” the grateful businessman acknowledged his thanks in a familiar Jehlumi accent.

The crowd moving around the square represented people from all over. Girls wearing smart hijab, form fitting jeans and designer sun glasses perched on the top of their scarves could have been anywhere else in the Middle East. Portly matrons in billowing dresses could be part of the Turkish diaspora living in Berlin. The city has the dubious distinction of being the second largest city of Turkey. Slant eyed South East Asians sat sipping coffee in wooden cabins or lighting up their cigarettes under the awning to cover themselves from the sudden increase in rain could have been from Vietnam or the Philippines or any other place. Berlin also boasts a little Vietnam. The Dong Xuan Center in Berlin has many warehouses belonging to one successful Vietnamese businessman.

Berlin is a vibrant city. It has rebuilt itself after the re-unification of Germany. Immigrants have made it good in this city giving it a distinctly metropolitan look that is most evident in Alexander Platz.